GERMUND, Germany — The square tower on the distant hill puzzled us when we arrived in Germund for our two-week stay in western Germany’s Eifel region. By day, the tower resembled a heavy stake driven deep into the verdant heart of nearby Eifel National Park. At sunset, it seemed transformed into a giant torch that ignited the evening sky over the rolling countryside in a fiery crimson blaze.
One overcast morning, we set off by car from our vacation timeshare to satisfy our curiosity. Our quest took us to the gate of the NS Ordensburg Vogelsang, a sprawling gray complex with a brick watchtower atop the Dreiborn Plateau overlooking Lake Urft. The serenity of the mist-shrouded, densely forested hillsides along the Urft valley belied the Vogelsang’s true origins. The 250-acre enclave was built in 1934 by the Nazis as a clandestine training center for junior National Socialist Party members. After World War II ended, British armed forces took control of the facilities and set up a vast 8,250-acre military training ground, which was transferred to the Belgians in 1950. Although the central structure constructed by the Nazis was partially damaged in 1944 by Allied air raids, many tank ramps, airplane hangars, and barracks are still intact, offering a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era.
In 2005, Camp Vogelsang’s 71-year history as a military compound ended, and it was reopened as a visitors center and gateway to the Eifel National Park. The complex is now undergoing a $55 million renovation to develop a Nazi Documentation Center, national park exhibition, and Eifel display window. Guided tours, hiking trails, an on-site restaurant, and education programs are open to the public.
The Vogelsang was one of our surprise discoveries during a meandering journey through the enigmatic Eifel. The 43-square-mile Eifel National Park, established in 2004, is an hour south of Cologne. Its 150 miles of hiking, cycling, skiing, and bridle trails crisscross dense beech and oak forests, lace together feathery grasslands and spongy bogs, and skirt along the blue-frosted Rur and Urft rivers. More than 1,000 rare plants, such as the Green hound’s tongue and St. Berhard’s lily, and endangered animals, including the nearly extinct “little Eifel tiger,” or wildcat, make their homes under the park’s protective canopy.
The national park anchors the northern core of the much broader Eifel region, a triangular wedge in western Germany bounded by Cologne (north), Koblenz (east), Trier (south) and the border with Belgium (west). Although the Eifel is less well known and traveled than Bavaria, the region offers vacationers a hard-to-beat cornucopia of natural beauty, outdoor activities, historic sights, and hearty food and spirits. Getting lost or taking a detour is seldom a concern, because every winding road inevitably leads to a new, if unplanned, adventure.
The Eifel’s rich farmland unfolds in a precise patchwork of brilliant yellow mustard fields and fragrant green hayfields, dotted with black-and-white splotched dairy cows. Its romantic medieval towns nestle in cloistered valleys, and regal castles crown the hilltops. Throughout the year, Eifel towns fill with revelers who celebrate wine and beer festivals, street art fairs, fall harvest fests and religious holidays. Local biergartens and restaurants dish up succulent spargel (white asparagus) in soups, along with other German favorites, such as sauerbraten, wiener schnitzel, and sausage. Natural salt grottos and hot spring spas offer medicinal treatments and relaxation for health enthusiasts.
One of our favorite Eifel towns was Monschau, famous for its 1882 mustard mill and traditional moutarde de Montjoie. We browsed through the two-story handwerkermarkt, or handicraft market, before following a cobblestone walkway into the altstadt, or old town. Monschau’s attractive main square was ringed with cozy pastry shops, festive garden restaurants, and intriguing gift stores. We stopped at the Weihnachtshaus, or Christmas House, snugged into a 300-year-old half-timbered building, to buy holiday ornaments. Then we settled into a cafe table at the Lutticher Hof restaurant overlooking the Rur River to enjoy strong kaffee and a sweet slice of kuchen. Before leaving, we selected a bottle of Ahr valley red wine and deer sausage at the Historische Senfmuhle Monschau for dinner.
The following morning, we struck out for Aachen, the former seat of King Charlemagne’s imperial empire and an influential cultural center. A lively scene, filled with boisterous schoolchildren and melodies from a street musician, greeted us on the way to the Aachen cathedral, or Dom, founded as St. Mary’s chapel by Charlemagne in 800. Through the throng of onlookers, we glimpsed his royal throne, crown, and ornately decorated gold tomb, the Karlschrein. Thirty-two German emperors were crowned in Aachen between 936 and 1531, and each made a donation to the cathedral, which contains one of Germany’s most valuable collections of art. Afterward, we walked to the Town Hall to admire the magnificent upper-story coronation hall with its high vaulted ceiling, massive stone pylons, and historic oil paintings. No visit to Aachen would be complete without a stop at Nobis Printen bakery, where we purchased several tins of their famous gingerbread-flavored Printen cookies.
Other Eifel towns opened like jewel boxes to reveal their unique treasures. In Simmerath, we spent a Sunday afternoon trolling for bargains at the annual Spring Market. Bad Munstereifel ushered us through an ancient stone gate into the center of the medieval walled town. An imposing castle, now housing a restaurant and hotel, cast long shadows down flower-lined cobblestone alleyways and onto bustling outdoor cafes along the Erft River. In Heimbach, we arrived early on a Thursday morning and followed a Fronleichnam, or Corpus Christi, procession led by the local priest through the narrow streets and up into the town’s church.
Our most memorable Eifel impressions were of sundrenched woodland trails sprinkled with daisies and buttercups. During our second week, we rented a cabin at Landal GreenParks Wirfttal in Stadtkyll. The holiday park complex is located in a nature reserve where we took morning hikes through the towering red oaks and fragrant pines to nearby villages. We also drove to the Hohes Venn-Eifel, or High Fens, and stopped at a roadside park on the edge of a high-moor bog. A wooden boardwalk over the molasses-black swamp disappeared into the shrouded moorland, and we followed it for half a mile through an emerald sea of grass. Around us, delicate blossoms buffeted by the breeze seemed to flit like sprites among the moss-clad saplings.
The afternoon sunlight was fading on our final day in Germany when we arrived in Daun to search for the famous “Blue Eyes of the Eifel.” A zigzagging road led to an overlook where we gazed down on two iridescent blue circular crater lakes, or maars. The twin orbs, with their mirrored surfaces, appeared as deep, mysterious, and impenetrable as the Eifel over which they kept watch.